Homesick Restaurants: How Dallas Became a Dining Nowhereville.

Thousands of television sets had been sold in Dallas by 1951, but most of the time the machines weren't good for much. The city's biggest station aired a test pattern 15 hours a day. In homes across the county, hulking Philcos and Zeniths sat stone-faced in their mahogany veneer cases until 2:30 p.m., when WFAA's musical matinee came on.

The CBS affiliate, KRLD, perked up earlier, arresting the geometric doldrums for housewives and convalescents who craved better company than their radios. Its programming opened with a 15-minute news segment, followed at 10:30 a.m. by Martha McDonald's cooking show.

No footage survives from McDonald's show, which ran for five years before her declining health forced her to retire, but the recipes included in her cookbook suggest she was a militantly plain cook. "She keeps her dishes simple and sensible," her co-worker Louis Gibbons wrote in an introduction to Recipes from Martha McDonald's TV Kitchen. "One of her male viewers, an elderly gentleman, once said to me: 'I don't approve of television, but I do approve of Martha McDonald.'"

McDonald, the second of four daughters born to an Ellis County tenant farmer, was no bumpkin. She baked elaborate wedding cakes that were flanked with elegant rosettes. She could make a frilly prune whip. But Dallasites who tuned into her show, whether out of interest or desperation, found she concerned herself primarily with the food regular folks ate. Homemakers who counted their change before they wrote up their grocery lists had an ally in McDonald, whose distinctly North Texas dishes were hearty and frugal. While they weren't spicy, they had a certain roughness that, by mid-century, had come to define the region's cuisine.

There are the expected recipes for chicken fricassee and chop suey in McDonald's cookbook, along with the usual array of hashes and fruit salads suspended in gelatin. Often, though, the author skews crude, marshaling such ingredients as onions, bacon drippings, pimentos, mustard and chicken gizzards to whack her readers' palates. She beat eggs with massive amounts of olives and cheese, added swatches of bacon to the bowl, poured it in a pastry shell and called it a pie.

McDonald's uncouth kitchen stylings were very much in keeping with Dallas' edible sensibilities. Community cookbooks from the era strain with recipes for chili-sauced tongue, pickled peaches, horseradish-smothered tomatoes and pickle surprise, a hostess' standby of nickel-sized dill pickles, cored and stuffed with deviled ham and mayonnaise.

Local cooks had a knack for rendering innocuous foods rather rude, spicing and seasoning with a frontiersman's disregard for refinement: Mrs. T. L. Jaggers in 1946 published the recipe for her Texas beans in the Dallas College Club's cookbook. The preparation starts with a can of beans and gets gruffer from there. The reader is instructed to add bacon grease, mustard, ketchup and onion and warned, "If there are men present, there had better be plenty." Even hoity-toity Junior Leaguers got cheeky in the kitchen, serving up hot tamale loaves garnished with creamed beets and spiced onion pickles and broiling bacon bundles crammed with mustard sardines.

At that golden hour between Dallas reaching the population density it needed to cultivate a culture of its own and achieving the wealth it required to import the same, the city's culinary character was clear. Dallas food was nervy and brash. In an age when mothers coddled their children with milquetoast, Dallas cooks were adding two tablespoons of chili powder to 1 pound of pinto beans. That's a ratio a chili powder manufacturer could—and possibly did—endorse. Today, celebrity chef Paula Deen, hardly a paragon of reticence, recommends a single teaspoon for the same-sized serving.

For decades, Dallas proudly upheld a gospel of bold flavors. And then, somehow, the city forgot all about it.

The quintessential dish of Dallas' current dining scene doesn't have anything to do with peppers or mustard or pickles. It doesn't speak of the people who settled here, or the land they found. None of which has stopped almost every local restaurant with double-digit check averages from serving mussels, a seaborne mollusk that's impervious to direct seasoning. By latching onto steamed mussels, Dallas isn't just snubbing its culinary heritage—it's sacrificing its claim to being a serious and significant food city.

What counts in cookery today is a regionally specific food culture. Serving day-boat scallops 2,000 miles from Nantucket Sound no longer allows a town to call its culinary scene "world class"—a status cities covet because of the bragging rights, economic advantages and intellectual stimulation that come with it. Communities now are building their reputations on boudin and boiled whitefish, plates that plant an eater's feet firmly in the native soil.

The hyper-local approach may have reached its apex this year with the opening of Husk, chef Sean Brock's Charleston, South Carolina, paean to the South: "If it doesn't come from the South, it's not coming through the door," Brock, a James Beard award winner, decreed.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Hanna Raskin
Contact: Hanna Raskin